Humility and How I Got It: Brown, Bryant, and the Evolution of “Humble”
Over 30 years ago I worked for a curmudgeonly Episcopal priest. Father Campbell was of Scots heritage, although not actually from the auld soil, and I grew very fond of him despite the crusty exterior.
Before I knew him particularly well he informed me he was writing a book. I took the bait and asked what sort of book. He said it was a combination autobiography and self-help book, to be titled “Humility and How I Got It.”
As I listen to or read interviews with sports figures I have noticed a similar use of the word “humble,” as in “I’m just staying humble and doing X.”
“X” may be replaced with things like studying the playbook, working out, or any of the sort of activities one would assume were part of an athlete’s job. After hearing this enough times I realized it wasn’t an isolated instance of someone who just didn’t know what humble means, and began musing over what they were actually trying to say.
1. not proud or arrogant; modest: to be humble although successful.
2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.: In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble.
3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly: of humble origin; a humble home.
4. courteously respectful: In my humble opinion you are wrong.
When a guy says in an interview that he is “just staying humble,” the closest possibility is No. 1—he considers that he is being modest.
But almost by definition humility is not something you can attribute to yourself without irony. Clearly something else is going on here.
In 2009 the Steelers drafted wide receiver Mike Wallace in the third round. They added receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in 2010, in the third and sixth rounds. The three developed quickly and seemingly bonded instantly, and by the 2011 season had dubbed themselves “Young Money.” They were brash, outspoken, and confident. Not everyone was a fan.
This style of player, and the accompanying end zone celebrations and such-like, is surprisingly polarizing. There are those who are fans of the Heath Miller school of end zone celebrations. (Heath quietly walks over to the referee and hands him the ball.) Then there are those who are fans of end zone celebrations such as Victor Cruz’s salsa dance or, heaven forfend, whatever it is Antonio Brown was doing out there the past few seasons.
Generally speaking, the arguments fall more or less into two factions:
Killjoys: “It’s your job. Try to act like you’ve been there before. Just look at Heath if you want to know what a professional looks like.”
Let The Kids Play: “It’s entertainment. It entertains me. Why not?”
For the record, I think some of the celebrations are fun and some are silly, and I often if not invariably enjoy them. What I don’t like is the stuff which borders on taunting, and I feel the first down celebrations skate pretty close to that line.
Not too surprisingly, it is the Young Money type of player who tends to refer to himself as “staying humble.” I pondered the question of what he actually means when he says this. In the end, it must mean he feels he hasn’t gotten too good, or too proud, to continue work hard at his craft.
A case study of this sort of humility is Antonio Brown.
He showed up to this season’s training camp driving a $500,000 Rolls Royce, as reported by Chris Adams of the Tribune-Review:
“You gotta stay humble, man, that’s what it’s all about. Never forget where you came from.”
Brown recalled how he rode the bus around the Mount Pleasant, Mich., campus of Central Michigan until his senior year when he upgraded to driving a Pontiac.
For his rookie camp with the Steelers, Brown showed up in a Jeep Wrangler.
“ A lot of stuff changed from six years ago,” Brown said. “I’ve come a long way from the Jeep Wrangler.”
More to the point than the vehicle he drives, Brown has come a long way from what one typically expects of a sixth-round draft pick. No one could ever accuse him of not having earned every accolade he has been given. I only question the use of the word “humble” in conjunction with moving up from a used Pontiac to a Rolls Royce.
Of course, not everyone is a fan of humility. As Muhammad Ali said:*
At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.
Rick Pitino, head coach (men’s basketball) at the University of Louisville, would beg to differ:*
Humility is the true key to success. Successful people lose their way at times. They often embrace and overindulge from the fruits of success. Humility halts this arrogance and self-indulging trap. Humble people share the credit and wealth, remaining focused and hungry to continue the journey of success.
This one is interesting because Pitino is bringing it back, in a sense, to the guys who say they are just staying humble and continuing to work hard—they remain “focused and hungry.” And yet, he notes that there are traps to seeing early success.
Which makes me wonder about Martavis Bryant. No one would say he was lacking substantial talent. Teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey would go even farther than that. As he told Josh Yohe of DK on Pittsburgh Sports in early June of this year:
“When I look at this team, I see the best wide receiver in the league,” Heyward-Bey said, pointing at Antonio Brown.
Then he pointed at Bryant.
“Martavis,” Heyward-Bey said, “has a chance, talent-wise, to be the best to ever play.”
Those are strong words. As Heyward-Bey, who has taken it upon himself to mentor Bryant, noted:
There are a couple of things that I really like. For one, I see him putting in the work now. He’s starting to figure out what it means to be a professional. That’s important. Before, he was the man in college. Now this is his job. He gets that now. He’s starting to understand life in a different way.
The question to ask, though, is whether Bryant is going to throw it all away because of poor life choices. There is a recent and scary cautionary tale in our own division, and many are looking at the vastly talented Josh Gordon, who will spend this entire season suspended for a failed drug test, and wondering if Bryant is next.
A dose of the old-fashioned sort of humility would be a good thing for Bryant right now. There is an element in the new-fangled “humble” which says “I work really hard, and I’m really talented, and nobody can touch me.” You really learn about a player’s character when he has job security and name recognition.
We can only hope that Bryant has a strong enough character to at least let his own self-interest inform his recreational decisions. Hopefully he will also listen to Antonio Brown, who called him out on espn.com a few weeks ago:
You have to be professional on and off the field. You have to take care of your business. You’ve got to make right decisions. I tell Martavis all the time, ‘it’s all about who you have around you.’
Whatever one may think about Brown’s version of humility and his first down gestures, no one can do anything but admire a kid who has come through Liberty City (Miami) and homelessness to achieve what he has by a relentless work ethic and smart decisions. Bryant would do very well to listen.
And while he is listening to Antonio Brown, Bryant might also benefit by looking more closely at some of the men he has played with who personify the traditional meaning of “humble.” He will undoubtedly never read these words, but just in case, I am going to finish with a sort of “saint’s gallery” of men he would do well to emulate.
Jim Wexell of scout.com wrote a piece in 2012 after Miller was injured and out for the rest of the season titled “Heath Miller & The Art of Humble Maintenance.” I’m linking the article here, although I think you need a subscription to read it.
It describes someone Wexell dubs a “devoted practitioner of the dying art of humility.” Although I would love to include the whole article, I will have to confine myself to some of the most germane bits.
[After Miller blew out his knee in the previous game] he was voted MVP by his saddened teammates a few days later. I had hoped to ask Heath then about the importance of humility in sports as some sort of positive way to end a negative season. But he wasn’t around.
Heath would probably just say that he’s way too boring to be interviewed anyway. And he would mean it.
So [Troy] Polamalu attempted to take on the topic.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s a syndrome or a cancer, but there’s kind of an uprising of a more egotistical, ego-centric athlete in sports, the selfish athlete who’s looking out for himself and is money-centered, really avaricious.
But, really, Heath would be better to talk to about this. Heath to me is someone who’s innately humble. He doesn’t struggle to be humble.”
Wexell asked Polamalu, “Why is such deep-rooted humility so important in sports anyway?”
“[I]t’s important in sports that everybody has a role, and sometimes you humbly have to accept it as a follower. Sometimes you have to humbly accept it as a leader.
…I always think ‘Well, what is it that drives you to be better?’ What drives you to be better is you understand that people are better than you, and that’s a point of humility. That’s what makes you work harder. That’s what makes you study harder.
But when you let arrogance seep into your game and you say ‘Well, I’m the best,’ then you don’t struggle at getting better at all, which in turn doesn’t help anybody on this team.”
Wexell: “Isn’t that a difficult balancing act? Don’t we need great confidence to achieve, to thrive, in any endeavor?”
“It depends on how you view it. [You can] say, ‘I’ve got confidence in myself. I’m better than them.’ Or, ‘I respect him so much because he’s better than me and I’m going to give him everything I’ve got.’”
And then Polamalu came back around to [Miller]…
“Heath is humble in its purest form,” Polamalu said. “He’s just a naturally humble guy who from the outside doesn’t look like he struggles with it.”
In a post titled “Be An MVP At Work Like Steelers’ Heath Miller,” author Mike Bowman writes:
On December 27, 2012, Heath Miller was voted the Most Valuable Player on the Steelers football team by his teammates. It is the first time in…Steelers’ team history that a tight end received this recognition. Miller didn’t win this title because of one or two spectacular plays, but because of what he did on every play during the season.
The author lists five traits of an MVP, including No. 3:
Heath is humble.
Someone else got a first down or scored points? Heath will be one of the first players there to congratulate him. Heath scored? Don’t look for him in the end zone celebrating. You will find him on the bench studying and preparing the next set of plays.
This attitude can be seen in a quote by Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli:*
I don’t celebrate because I’m only doing my job. When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?
Several years ago I went to one of the Steelers “Ladies Day Out” events. It was at the South Side practice facility, and we were fed in the team cafeteria. One of the women in front of me asked a cafeteria worker who the nicest man on the team was, and he didn’t hesitate for even an instant before saying “Heath Miller.” This also is true humility—realizing that the people who serve you lunch are just as deserving of your attention and courtesy as those who make the decisions about your contract or your playing time.
Heath Miller obviously realizes that doing his job well isn’t an extraordinary thing, although he may have extraordinary abilities and an extraordinary job.
I commend Martavis Bryant for working at his craft. I hope he will look at Heath Miller and realize it is the beginning of becoming a professional, not the end.
I wrote an article for Behind the Steel Curtain in June of 2013 about a number of the newer players. One who impressed me very much was Heyward. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the things I felt told you a lot about him was he and his wife Allie’s wedding registry:
Character also shows in the little things. I noted a tweet from Baron Batch congratulating Cameron Heyward on his marriage last month. I looked for further information about the wedding but found very little. The one thing I did find was the wedding registry (Macy’s and Crate and Barrel) for the couple. What struck me was the modesty of the requests. Of the 60+ items requested, only one (a set of pots and pans) cost more than $100. The majority of items cost under $30. This may not seem like a big deal to those of you of the male persuasion, but to me it says they are down-to-earth, sensible people. In a world of “Bridezillas” it’s refreshing.
In an article on Yahoo Sports, Les Carpenter talks about what Heyward was like in college:
Jim Heacock, the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, has had plenty of great players in 37 years of coaching. He’s pretty sure he’s seen determination and fire before. He knows he’s seen good men too, ones who studied in their classes, who visited hospitals and signed autographs, who had a moment for everyone.
Then Cameron Heyward showed up to school. And from the start there was something unique about him on the field. He never stopped. Every play in the games, every drill in practice Cameron ran the same. He was relentless.
“I never had anyone quite like him,” Heacock says.
But there is something else too. Heacock sees it when Cameron leaves the field. He’s so kind, so considerate, it’s as if a switch has been pulled and the ferocious player on the field instantly softens, eyes happy, smile wide…
They made Cameron a captain at Ohio State and to Heacock that seemed obvious. Cameron was always at class, always working, always studying. A leader.
Finally the coach stops for a moment.
“You know,” he says. “He’s almost perfect.”
But there’s more to it:
Cameron has never been comfortable with being an athlete. He’s never had much use for the notoriety it brings, the false acclaim, the people always hanging on pretending to be your friend. As he walks into the restaurant a man calls “Good luck next week,” and Cameron is polite. He nods and says “thank you.” But he would rather have not been noticed at all.
Heyward attributes his attitudes to his mother, Charlotte Heyward:
While Ironhead [Heyward, Cameron’s famous dad] took Cameron through locker rooms to meet his famous teammates, Charlotte taught him about the league that would always see its players as disposable, to be discarded at the first sign of wear.
“It’s a business, don’t take anything personally,” she’d always say.
Mostly, she pushed on Cameron and her two other sons, Corey and Connor, the value of a name, of a legacy. Children might someday be looking up to him, she’d say. Be careful what you do.
“You’re always going to be an example to everyone. Everything you do is going to be observed by someone. You have a famous last name, in our community people are going to be watching. But beyond that, God’s watching even if no one else is. You must always remember someone is paying attention.”
His then-girlfriend, now wife, told Carpenter:
“He is literally the exception to the way athletes are. He is so far from the other football players. He just has this really good head on his shoulders.”
Cameron Heyward looks down. He smiles but the words seem to embarrass him too.
I recommend the whole article, which has a lot of interesting information about Ironhead Heyward as well. It details a couple of other unobvious things about Ironhead’s son that impress me.
For one, he looked at the mistakes his father made and learned from them. His father was an alcoholic, and Heyward resolved never to be like that, although he loved and admired his father. He doesn’t drink.
For another, he takes the long view. He went to class, although he said he often didn’t particularly want to, because he has a goal. After he leaves the NFL he plans to teach school. I’m sure he will make more than enough money in the NFL to live on the rest of his life, because he is also smart enough and disciplined enough not to spend the money he makes on dumb stuff. But he wants to make a difference.
There is tremendous wisdom in learning from the mistakes of others and in taking the long view. There is also great humility in it. It is nothing more than arrogance to assume that you can avoid the traps others fell into without working hard to avoid them.
There is also humility in realizing that however exciting and highly compensated your job, it will come to an end, and you still have a lifetime to live out. Heyward shows good sense to have thought about his “life’s work” before embarking on the brief roller-coaster ride of an NFL career.
Success hasn’t changed Cameron Heyward, as far as I can tell. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from him.
I’m not the only one to have noticed, though. As noted in an article by Kevin Van Valenburg in the Baltimore Sun after Suisham was signed by the Steelers:
Shaun Suisham is just about the polar opposite of former Steelers kicker Jeff Reed. He’s quiet, he’s humble, he’s Canadian, he’s never been photographed shirtless and intoxicated in public, and he seems like an unlikely candidate to rip his own fans and his own field if something goes wrong.
As I noted in one of the above-linked articles, after Suisham nailed four field goals from 40 yards or more in a game against Buffalo, Tribune-Review columnist Joe Starkey tried to get Suisham to say something good about himself, without success. Finally, in desperation, Starkey asked him what it was like to kick in notoriously difficult Heinz Field. Suisham solemnly asserted that Heinz Field was his favorite field in the NFL.
The Kickin’ Canuck doesn’t have to tell you he’s humble. He lives it. As a result he has been a blessing to his family and his team.
And although there are many more men in the Steelers locker room I could talk about, I will finish with the King of Humble, Troy Polamalu, because as he makes clear, humility is a choice.
From a YouTube interview:
Pride is tough. You go to high school, it’s all “Pride! Courage!”, all these types of words we use to motivate ourselves. But I don’t know of anywhere in Scripture, or through saint’s lives, where pride was ever a positive characteristic of anyone. That kind of egotism is a really tough struggle, especially in this entertainment business…
From the scout.com article linked above about Heath Miller:
When Troy Polamalu won the team’s Most Valuable Player award two years ago, he gave one heckuva begrudging acceptance speech.
“It’s kind of uncomfortable winning anything like this. If I was ever a coach, I probably wouldn’t ever have an award like this, just because it is such a team sport…”
After Polamalu recounted a story about an Orthodox saint, Wexell asked “doesn’t God want his children to display their talents?” Polamalu’s answer was revealing:
“But how can you know God without having a humble disposition or humility? That’s what I would feel God wants, that sort of relationship. And how can you know that without humility? And if you sacrifice something that’s your greatest gift, as God sacrificed, that’s the ultimate, isn’t it?”
Essentially very Friday during the season, throughout his career, Troy Polamalu went, without fanfare, video cameras, newspapermen, or any desire for recognition, and made a difference in the lives of many cancer patients and their families at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. As a highly compensated athlete he could have sent a big check once a year or showed up to a fundraiser. (And he also did those things.) But he gave the most precious gifts he had—his time and himself.
Scott Brown, now the ESPN staff writer on the Steelers, was working for the Tribune-Review when he heard about a particular patient at Children’s who Polamalu became particularly close to. He ended up writing a book about the girl, called “Heaven Sent: The Heather Miller Story.” If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It is beautifully written, deeply touching, and demonstrates the difference a person can make in the lives of others. It also incidentally shows the person Polamalu has made himself through discipline, faith, and determination.
So, Martavis, if you are looking for a constructive and deeply satisfying way to use your down time, try helping someone else. You could do no better than to emulate the player who was a legend on the field and has the heart of a servant off of it. Such men (and women) can change the world.
And finally, as John Wooden, an unprecedentedly successful men’s basketball coach at UCLA said:*
Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.
* All marked quotes from addicted2success.com